So you want to be mayor? 10 things you should know

Commentary: Vision will get you noticed, but skills are what get the job done well.
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Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn talks to the crush of media who came to witness the first same sex marriages.

Commentary: Vision will get you noticed, but skills are what get the job done well.

Eight candidates are running to be Seattle's next mayor. The bait-and-switch of mayoral races is that primary campaigns often turn on grand visions rather than on the skills needed to excel at the job. Grandiose visioneering gets a candidate noticed, the more so the bigger the field. That's a pity because those visions typically differ just a bit, but candidate management skill often differs wildly.

How you get the job of Mayor is very different than how you get the job done well once you have it. Reflecting on what the job really is — and what each candidate is capable of in managing a complex organization — is vital because executive acumen is an essential skill for turning civic vision into civic reality. Resting on vision alone isn't nearly enough.

The mayor's job is big and sprawling and a lot harder than one thinks. Consider this, if you're lucky enough to get the job:

1. Your campaign volunteers are not, en masse, the best people to run city government. Campaign skills and large-scale management skills differ: quantitative skills, technical skills, experience running — and inspiring — a large team. Job one is to tell some great campaigners that it is time to move on; a difficult but necessary task. A new mayor needs "binders full" of fresh talent to effectively introduce changes. And there's almost no time: Just a few weeks from election to taking office. Advance preparation is required in the extreme.

2. You'll have to organize the mayor's office from scratch. That's thirty people that need to hit the ground running from before day one. On inauguration day, you will enter an office of empty desks and files, data shipped off to archives and hard drives wiped clean. Meanwhile, none of the daily demands of the job has slowed. You're already behind. You must build your team and ramp up fast in order to catch up. Which candidates have done anything remotely like that before?

3. A mayor's ability to drive change tends to decline the longer they're in office, so your first moves should be strategic, bold and effective. What will they be? What has prepared the current candidates to hire a Police Chief or choose the CEO for the tenth largest public electric utility in the country?” Now is the time to ask questions like these of the candidates.

4. Your cabinet comprises the heads of dozens of different departments ranging from tiny to giant. Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities would be some of the larger companies in the city if they stood alone. Many department heads are excellent CEOs, but some should be in a different line of work. Those are high-level HR challenges to execute in a hurry.

5. There are rival egos to sort through in those biweekly cabinet meetings. You'll need to lead by example to earn respect, because if you lose the engagement of the cabinet, your ability to get things done will vaporize before you realize it's gone. And the detailed reports those departments send you every few weeks? All publicly disclosable, so you must be comfortable operating at a level of transparency and scrutiny that corporate CEOs rarely endure.

6. About the budget: Four billion dollars with a B. It's a head-spinning array of funds and "pockets" watched over by the City Budget Office and its nearly thirty intense number crunchers. They can be sensors, planners, measurers and enforcers, but to be effective they will need large swaths of your calendar and your attention. Always.

7. There are limitless things that can swamp a new mayor. The mayor gets 30-50 thousand letters and e-mails each year. Every one deserves a careful reply. When is the last time a candidate created a team or process to deal with 50 thousand anything? Of course, there are also some things so important they could consume your every waking moment if you let them. They will keep you awake many nights, regardless. Two word example: police department.

8. City Council. The mayor executes, but the Council legislates (while occasionally also attempting to execute). And — How to say this? — they can be all over the map. Yet without five Council votes, bold visions from your long-ago primary campaign are certain to be dead on arrival.

9. Effectively leading city employees is another make-or-break task. Between 10 and 11,000 people. Individuals. They come from all walks of life and hold all kinds of jobs. They live and work in the city, in the suburbs and even far out in small Cascade towns tending to the city’s dams, powerlines and watersheds. Naturally, they look to you to inspire them, help them know the import of their work and to create a culture of excellence. When is the last time, primary candidates, that you've crafted a strategy to be implemented by hundreds or thousands or people? How'd that go?

10. Lastly there is the buzz of everything else: community breakfasts, fundraisers, neighboring cities and officials, Olympia, the occasional photo op at The White House. Not to mention taking care of yourself, your home and family, your own energy and health.

There are two big mistakes easily made: one would be to just show up and drink from the firehose each day and react to what lands in your inbox. You would end up a purely reactive mayor, hemmed in by the diligent inertia of the job, unable to advance any vision at all. The second newbie mistake would be to buy in to the myth of the imperial mayoralty, assuming that just by issuing orders, directives and commands, your workers and fleets will follow.

The mayor's job is a multitasking nightmare. Amid the din you will need the skills to be strategic and to lead with grace, wisdom, some humility and authenticity. You must create a policy, analysis and decisionmaking engine from scratch, fire it up and run it at full speed for the duration.

This is a tall order for anyone, but an enormous leap for a candidate who has not built a complex organization or led an extraordinarily diverse team through intense challenge before.

An attractive vision for the city and its future may be necessary for a candidate in the primary, but it is not sufficient for a mayor to succeed. That is why a discussion about raw managerial talent is an important one to have well before the first vote.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.